Under threat of contempt of court, Gov. Jerry Brown unveiled a plan to ease prison crowding by releasing certain inmates early, sending others to county jails and relocating some to state fire camps -- but added that he doesn’t support it.
Although the plan would remove thousands of inmates from California’s packed prisons, it would not meet court requirements to lower the population by more than 9,000. The jurists could order more inmates freed if they find the governor’s plan unacceptable.
Brown said in court filings that he would ask lawmakers to permit the release of hundreds of “low-risk” prisoners who are elderly or medically frail, along with offenders who earn credit for good conduct. He would also put thousands of inmates in camps dedicated to conservation work and fighting wildfires, in empty county beds and in a new prison set to open this summer.
It was unclear Friday whether the Legislature would agree. Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) called prospects for the plan “dubious” and questioned the wisdom of spending public dollars on more prison beds rather than rehabilitation efforts.
The filings, submitted just before a midnight deadline Thursday, made clear that even Brown has little taste for his own recommendations. The governor, contending that the inmate count has already been sufficiently lowered and he needs to do nothing more, will take the “unusual step” of drafting legislation he does not want, the documents say.
On Friday, his administration was campaigning against its own proposal.
“The plan is ugly,” prisons chief Jeffrey Beard, whom Brown appointed, told reporters. “We don’t like it. But ... it’s the best plan we could come up with.”
Beard said the judges are fixated on an arbitrary number, ignoring improvements in prison conditions since court intervention began more than a decade ago.
“The state has transformed the prison healthcare system into one of the best in the nation,” Beard said. “This is about more than a number. The case is too important to the people of California, to the safety of our neighborhoods.”
Beard acknowledged that the state’s plan fails to meet the federal population target by about 2,570 inmates. Asked if state officials could avoid being held in contempt, Beard replied, “I certainly hope so,” adding, “We can’t do any more without creating problems.”
Prisoners’ lawyers said the governor offers too little, too late.
“There is no reason they can’t comply to the letter of the order in the extended time frame they have been given,” said Rebekah Evenson of the Prison Law Office, lead plaintiff in the 12-year-old court case that triggered the federal population caps four years ago. “They have to stop their political posturing and need to knuckle down.”
Evenson contended that California prisons are “bloated” with low-risk inmates who can and should go free.
In addition to freeing 650 prisoners who are elderly, frail or earn good-conduct credits, Brown’s plan calls for moving 1,700 others to the new prison and 1,300 to fire camps. The state would also lease 1,600 cells from county jails. Separately, the administration is already negotiating space for 1,200 additional inmates in various local facilities, some of them privately owned.
Beard said the state also is considering leasing private prisons and staffing those facilities with state corrections officers, but he provided no numbers.
Beard noted that counties have been struggling with bursting jails since Brown’s 2011 directive that many low-level offenders remain in local custody rather than be sent to state prisons. County officials throughout California complain they cannot hold enough criminals, such as sex offenders who violate parole.
The Thursday filings note that an added burden on counties might increase pressure on judges to release inmates from local jails. But the documents say empty beds in Los Angeles and Alameda counties could hold state inmates.
L.A. County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Steve Whitmore said the county has had “informal” discussions with the state for a prisoner swap: Local officials would send several hundred jail inmates to work in the firefighting camps, and the state would fill the emptied jail cells with state prisoners.
“This is all very preliminary, the very beginning of ruminations,” Whitmore said.
Los Angeles County also has an empty 1,400-bed prison in Mira Loma, previously used to hold federal immigration detainees.
Most elements of Brown’s plan require legislative approval. Steinberg said Friday that despite his lack of enthusiasm for the proposal, he approved of the governor’s vow to seek redress all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Brown filed an appeal with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals late Friday in one of the underlying court cases on prison conditions.
The Chief Probation Officers of California also urged Brown to continue to fight.
“We stand with the governor in his protest of the need to make further adjustments ... as it could negatively impact public safety,” said a statement from organization President Mack Jenkins.
Republicans, who opposed Brown’s 2011 policy shift and want to see parts of it rolled back, applauded some elements of the plan but urged the governor to borrow money to resume prison expansion projects.
“We must go farther to stop a mass influx of serious and repeat criminals into our communities,” Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway of Tulare said in a statement.
Three federal judges -- U.S. District Judges Thelton Henderson and Lawrence Karlton and U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt in Los Angeles -- threatened last month to hold Brown and other state officials in contempt if they continued to delay meeting the inmate population cap.
The governor maintains that the number of state prisoners has fallen by 43,000 in six years, and “California has already achieved a durable remedy,” according to his Thursday filing.
The judges have ordered crowding reduced to ensure that inmates receive adequate healthcare and to prevent deaths. They have given California 90 days to produce a list of inmates considered to be at low risk of committing new crimes and might therefore be released.
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Brown’s plan on prisons
Gov. Jerry Brown’s new proposal to ease prison crowding, which falls short of court-ordered population limits, would:
Move 1,722 inmates to housing now being built.
Lease 1,600 beds in county jails.
Send 1,300 inmates to state fire camps.
Free 650 inmates who are elderly, frail or earn credit for good conduct.
Source: U.S. District Court filings, Times reporting